Adviser fired after college paper runs photos of streaker

“Our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident.” — East Carolinian editor

A newspaper adviser was fired on Wednesday, and he’s pretty sure it’s because of these photos.

They ran in the East Carolina University student newspaper last November, and administrators at the Greenville, NC school made it clear then they were miffed about the images.

We will be having conversations with those who were involved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience. The goal will be to further the students’ understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate and effective in order to get their message across.

Paul Isom

On Wednesday, East Carolinian adviser Paul Isom was met in his office by the university’s HR person and marketing/communications director. They gave him four hours to clean out his space and leave the campus, where he’s worked since 2008. From Wednesday’s Student Press Law Center story:

“They said that I would get severance and my final paycheck at the end of the month,” Isom said.

Isom said he received no explanation other than that they “wanted to move in a different direction.” …

Isom, now unemployed, said he initially felt stunned and disappointed and is now unsure what the future holds.

“It’s mixed, it’s a little scary. How am I going to earn a living? Right at this moment, I don’t know.”

The Streaker

Isom tells splc.org that he’s considering a lawsuit against the university.

If I was not willing to stand up for a First Amendment issue, then I wouldn’t have been advising them the way that I was advising them. I would have told them, ‘Yeah, don’t run any controversial pictures, don’t make anybody mad.

He writes on his Facebook page: If anyone wants to register a complain to those responsible: vice chancellor for student affairs Virginia Hardy: hardyv@ecu.edu or director of marketing and communication Chris Stansbury: stansburyc@ecu.edu. And yes, you read that right. I reported to a marketing director. That’s just one of the problems at ECU.”

ISOM TELLS ME IN EMAIL:

A few months before the streaker photos, the students published a column that got an equal amount of negative reaction that many considered misogynistic. [Here is the column and the letter to readers that followed.] I received no feedback whatsoever from administrators on that one. When they ran the streaker photos, it was a different story and yes, I immediately felt my job might be in jeopardy. I was asked by the vice chancellor for student affairs to delete the photos from the web and told her as politely as possible, if we do that this will go from being a controversy that will die in a few days to a slam dunk First Amendment issue that will drag on for years. I stressed I advise the paper with the best interest of the university in mind.

At the end of a meeting that included me, the editorial staff and several administrators, the vice chancellor said “there will be consequences.” There were none until today.

All that said, this still came as a surprise. As time passed, I (wrongly) assumed it had blown over. When I asked my direct supervisor if there had been any more discussions among higher-level admins about the issue, he said there hadn’t been. So when these two administrators showed up in my office unannounced, I was certainly surprised.

* East Carolina fires adviser in wake of streaker controversy
* Nov. 8: Streaker takes the field at football game
* Nov. 6: Streaker to appear in court (warning: annoying audio ad)
* Nov. 8: “The editor of the paper makes all editorial decisions,” says Isom

Comments

comments

10 comments
  1. B. DiNome said:

    Mo Jo, You may be right that publishing those photos was in poor taste. However, the decision belonged to the student editors, not their adviser. ECU’s student newspaper does not receive state funds. The adviser is not charged with approving or vetoing content. A student newspaper should be precisely that: a *student* newspaper. To have a state employee (essentially an agent of the government) perform prior review or prior restraint is unconstitutional. The question now becomes whether he was fired in retaliation. The action has surely chilled the students’ speech. When you were a student photographer, the right and obligation to run those photos as you saw fit would have been, should have been, yours alone, not the government’s.

  2. John Rabe said:

    The prior restraint argument makes no sense for two reasons. First, because the advisor is an advisor, not the boss. Big difference between an advisor advising not to do something and a judge forbidding. Second, because an advisor’s JOB is to say yes AND no. Is he doing his job if they want to run some boring or stupid story and he says, “I can’t advise you not to because of the first amendment?”

    Secondly, it’s simply not important to run these nude photos unaltered. You could put a dot over his penis, or a tiny head of Joe Paterno, and the audience would still know he was naked. This is not comparable to running photos of campus police pepper-spraying peaceful demonstrators, or an anti-gay Senator dancing at a gay club

  3. Tory Brecht said:

    I worked as a student newspaper adviser for 5 years. Not advising his students that it was a bad idea to run pictures of a completely naked person on the website or the print edition is a dereliction of duties.

    Sure, it may be protected speech. But the role of an adviser is to help students learn how to be professional news reporters. There is no media outlet in the country that would make the editorial choice to show a completely naked man on its website or in its print editions.

    I feel bad this guy lost his job, but it was a reckless decision and poor advising.

  4. Sheri Venema said:

    How do we know that Paul did or did not advise the students to run or not run the photo? Everything I’ve read here and in the SPLC piece is silent on that. That doesn’t change the core issue here, but because people are commenting on it (saying he shouldn’t have advised them, or he should have), somebody ought to make that clear.

  5. This action should send several messages:
    1) The First Amendment remains under attack constantly by government agencies.
    2) If you are a high school student looking at colleges, avoid ECU unless you hate the First Amendment.
    3) The ECU administration is run by idiots.
    4) All of us who advise college student media remain under constant threat daily by institutions of higher learning that are meant to value the very ideals they often try to suppress.

  6. The biggest problem here is that too many people are ignorant about the First Amendment and what it really means. Read it. It says government won’t restrict certain rights. That’s it. Nothing else.

    After that, it’s up to editors, advisers, et al., to make calls on what should run and what should not. No one is violating the First Amendment by making those calls.

    At one paper, a photographer insisted we should have run a photo of a fatal car accident where the mangled body was in full view and blood was everywhere. Would this photo have given people a better idea of the scene? Of course. Would it have been a good idea to use it? Of course not. Those are the decisions that people need to make. If they cannot make them, then it’s good to farm them out now.

  7. Peter said:

    Examine those photos and try to see this issue from the point of view of a college administrator, thinking of what had happened recently in Penn State’s football program.

    In the photos, it appears that (Left) two older men are chasing and grabbing a naked young man on a football field, (middle) they force him to the ground, backside in the air, and (Right) more grown men gather around, most just watching and apparently none trying to keep his attackers from the naked young man. Thank goodness we happen to have photographs, because otherwise we’d have another one of those confusing he-said he-said arguments.

    After Penn State, an ECU administrator cannot simply look the other way at this sort of event. Someone must be punished.

  8. Loafer1946 said:

    This would not happen in the UK a) we are not so hung up about nudity and b) we have laws to protect people from unjustified dismissal

  9. Re the UK ‘Laws” cited by “Loafer”: b) we have laws to protect people from unjustified dismissal”

    In my experience in publishing in the UK those self-same laws also make sure you can’t fire loafers and thieves. As well as perverts. Not so wonderful as you make them out to be unless you are a pervert, a thief, or… a loafer.

  10. As for the “advisor” what a really great lesson his fate has turned out to be.

    Run something stupid and vulgar on the front page and get fired.

    Nothing at all to do with the 1st amendment which is pretty clear about “congress” making “no law.”

    Says nothing about private publications, does it? What is it about these words that is so hard for literate advisors with a command of the language to comprehend?